The Bible View of Slavery

Morris Jacob Raphall


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The following text includes hate speech. It employs biblical passages to support the argument for enslavement of people of color in the United States. This text provides insight into Jewish history; however, The Posen Library does not condone or promote hate speech of any kind. Baltimore Rabbi David Einhorn strongly disputed Raphall’s pro-slavery stance in his own sermon. To read Einhorn’s response, see Response to ‘A Bible View of Slavery’. (1809). This text provides insight into Jewish history; however, The Posen Library does not condone or promote hate speech of any kind.

New York, Jan. 15th, 1861

The subject of my investigation falls into three parts:—

First, How far back can we trace the existence of slavery?

Secondly, Is slaveholding condemned as a sin in sacred Scripture?

Thirdly, What was the condition of the slave in Biblical times, and among the Hebrews; and saying with our Father Jacob, “for Thy help, I hope, O L-rd!” I proceed to examine the question, how far back can we trace the existence of slavery?

It is generally admitted, that slavery had its origin in war, public or private. The victor having it in his power to take the life of his vanquished enemy, prefers to let him live, and reduces him to bondage. The life he has spared, the body he might have mutilated or destroyed, become his absolute property. He may dispose of it in any way he pleases. Such was, and through a great part of the world still is, the brutal law of force. When this state of things first began, it is next to impossible to decide. If we consult Sacred Scripture, the oldest and most truthful collection of records now or at any time in existence, we find the word evved, “slave,” which the English version renders “servant,” first used by Noah, who, in Genesis ix. 25, curses the descendants of his son Ham, by saying they should be Evved Avadim, the “meanest of slaves,” or as the English version has it “servant of servants.” The question naturally arises how came Noah to use the expression? How came he to know anything of slavery? There existed not at that time any human being on earth except Noah and his family of three sons, apparently by one mother, born free and equal, with their wives and children. Noah had no slaves. From the time that he quitted the ark he could have none. It therefore becomes evident that Noah’s acquaintance with the word slave and the nature of slavery must date from before the Flood, and existed in his memory only until the crime of Ham called it forth. You and I may regret that in his anger Noah should from beneath the waters of wrath again have fished up the idea and practice of slavery; but that he did so is a fact which rests on the authority of Scripture. I am therefore justified when tracing slavery as far back as it can be traced, I arrive at the conclusion, that next to the domestic relations of husband and wife, parents and children, the oldest relation of society with which we are acquainted is that of master and slave. [ . . . ]

And if you answer me, “Oh, in their time slaveholding was lawful, but now it has become a sin,” I in my turn ask you, “When and by what authority you draw the line?” Tell us the precise time when slaveholding ceased to be permitted, and became sinful?” When we remember the mischief which this inventing a new sin, not known in the Bible, is causing; how it has exasperated the feelings of the South, and alarmed the conscience of the North, to a degree that men who should be brothers are on the point of embruing their hands in each other’s blood, are we not entitled to ask the reverend preacher of Brooklyn, “What right have you to insult and exasperate thousands of G-d-fearing, law-abiding citizens, whose moral worth and patriotism, whose purity of conscience and of life, are fully equal to your own? What right have you to place yonder grey-headed philanthropist on a level with a murderer, or yonder mother of a family on a line with an adulteress, or yonder honorable and honest man in one rank with a thief, and all this solely because they exercise a right which your own fathers and progenitors, during many generations, held and exercised without reproach or compunction. [ . . . ]”

This, indeed, is the great distinction which the Bible view of slavery derives from its divine source. The slave is a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected; he has rights. Whereas, the heathen view of slavery which prevailed at Rome, and which, I am sorry to say, is adopted in the South, reduces the slave to a thing, and a thing can have no rights. The result to which the Bible view of slavery leads us, is—1st. That slavery has existed since the earliest time; 2d. That slaveholding is no sin, and that slave property is expressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments; 3d. That the slave is a person, and has rights not conflicting with the lawful exercise of the rights of his owner. If our Northern fellow-citizens, content with following the word of G-d, would not insist on being “righteous overmuch,” or denouncing “sin” which the Bible knows not, but which is plainly taught by the precepts of men—they would entertain more equity and less ill feeling towards their Southern brethren. And if our Southern fellow-citizens would adopt the Bible view of slavery, and discard the heathen slave code, which permits a few bad men to indulge in an abuse of power that throws a stigma and disgrace on the whole body of slaveholders—if both North and South would do what is right, then “G-d would see their works and that they turned from the evil of their ways”; and in their case, as in that of the people of Nineveh, would mercifully avert the impending evil, for with Him alone is the power to do so. Therefore let us pray. [ . . . ]

And above all things, L-rd merciful and gracious, avert the calamity of civil war from our midst. If in Thy supreme wisdom Thou hast decreed that this vast commonwealth, which has risen under Thy blessing, shall now be separated, then we beseech Thee let that separation be peaceable; that no human blood may be shed, but that the canopy of Thy peace may still remain spread over all the land. May we address our prayers to Thee, O L-rd, at an acceptable time; mayest Thou, O G-d, in Thy abundant mercy, answer us with the truth of Thy salvation. Amen.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 6.

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